Sunday, August 28, 2016

Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's clear-sighted concept and beautiful singing give Manon flesh in New York

French composer Jules Massenet's Manon is a large undertaking but that didn't prevent one of New York's little players, dell'Arte Opera Ensemble, from giving it a beautifully sung and insightful production. As part of a two-week season entitled Violetta and her Sisters, Manon was presented with La Traviata at Baruch College Performance Arts Centre's Rose Nagelberg Theatre in midtown Manhattan.

Olivia Betzen as Manon and the dell'Arte Opera Ensemble cast
Director Victoria Crutchfield's concept not only shows intellect and vision but she gives it dynamic heart and well-handled form. Nina Bova's beautifully realised 18th century costumes did much to enhance Courtney Nelson's simple platformed set design featuring modern bits of furniture disguised by hints of classic styling and cutout props. The overall visual effect was assisted by Mary Ellen Stebbin's astute, dramatic lighting.

Premiering at Paris's Opéra-Comique in 1884, the five-act tragedy is based on the 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost. Pronunciation of Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille's French libretto was a little raw in dialogues but on most accounts French singing parts hit the ears admirably.

In Crutchfield's interpretation, Manon appears as a young, perhaps 1970s dressed woman who we encounter during the overture, peering longingly at an elegantly gowned mannequin through a large LED-lit frame, a shop window of sorts. Once she steps through, the fairytale begins but Manon's desire to live the look of high status is dependent on the men who'll pay for it. Little forgiveness is afforded her as the fairytale ends tragically before she has barely entered womanhood.

Olivia Betzen as Manon and Sean Christensen as des Grieux
In her subtle turn of the head and steeling glances as she eyes the Chevalier des Grieux, soprano Olivia Betzen gave immediate clarity to the 16 year-old Manon, who is sent off to a convent because, we're told, she enjoys herself too much. Was she unruly? Perhaps. Was she morally wayward? Perhaps not yet. Was she gifted with the quality to explore her world? Most definitely.

Betzen swung from episode to episode with telling gestural finesse and she gained more and more expressivity in her voice as the sometimes coquettish, playfully laissez-faire and self-conscious Manon needed. The top of the voice smoothened as the acts went by but Betzen's final act of portraying Manon's despair and surrender was as complete as you could want.

With aristocratic stiffness mixed with impassioned impetuousness as Des Grieux, tenor Sean Christensen gushes with charismatic vocal warmth. As a young artist who you can see stepping out successfully onto a larger stage, at least on this one, Christensen's Des Grieux was sensitive, confident and mature while giving credibility alongside Betzen's Manon.

Sean Christensen as des Grieux and Nick Webb as Comte des Grieux
Stan Lacy was an impressive, oaky, resonant-voiced presence and powered meaning through the text as Manon's brawny cousin Lescaut. In other fine performances, as Comte des Grieux, des Grieux's father, Nick Webb brought robust authority, Nobuki Momma distinguished himself as Brétigny and Andrew Surrena stood tall as the crafty and vengeful Guillot. Fine feminine cavorting accompanied Kristina Malinauskaite, Perri Sussman and Hilary Grobe's cheeky huddling as the three actors Poussette, Javotte and Rosette.

A 19-piece orchestra set to the side of the stage area played expertly under Music Director and conductor Chris Fecteau's considered music-vocal balance. For its good size, however, the strings could have provided greater richness of sound.

With the audience numbering less than 100, I was wondering where the almost 4,000-strong audience members at the Met disappear to when there's so much more opera to get closer to in a production such as this. It's easy to take for granted the spectacle such as one sees at the Met, like its own lavish Manon which was last staged just this year. Here, dell'Arte Opera Ensemble inspires, like so many of its kind around the world, because it shows just how much hard work is involved in getting there.

Production Photographs: courtesy of dell'Arte Opera Ensemble

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

McVicar's richly characterised Così fan tutte compensates for the musical imperfections in Sydney

Young lovers beware and take note. In Così fan tutte, the last of three operas librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte penned for Mozart in 1790, the philosopher Don Alfonso tells you men, from experience, that "Women are all the same", but that a greater love can forgive the infidelities of fickle women. Chivalrously, he blames the mistakes of men. On the other side of the fence, Despina the housemaid tells you women, "Foresee the misfortune so common to those who trust in men". Now one of the most performed operas worldwide, it's arguably the greatest opera buffa with a bite at sexual politics and a not too shabby advertisement for sexual revolution.

Andrew Jones, Nicole Car, Anna Dowsley and David Portillo
Following his magnificently dark Don Giovanni and tenderly dappled The Marriage of Figaro, director David McVicar's Così fan tutte unfolds with genuinely rich characterisation and subtle comic turns in another scenically beautiful production for Opera Australia. In its English translation (sung in Italian), Da Ponte's innuendo-soaked libretto reveals more than is acted on but the actions are nonetheless unforced, the pace is effectively engaging and the many scene changes morph splendidly over its two acts - that was until Act II when a mid-stage sliding wall panel wouldn't budge and the curtain came down with a pause in proceedings, a behind the scenes fix and an apology. In the hundreds of operas I've attended this was a first and the pause initially seemed unnecessary. But, when the intended fully exposed garden terrace scene appeared in deep blue evening light, it revealed the most evocative of set and costume designer Moritz Junge's enchanting and time-worn neoclassical walled spaces and David Finn's sharp summery lighting. All the while, McVicar's lively direction makes inroads into the entire stage area.

Maintaining the original location in Naples, McVicar cleverly transplants the action from the 18th to the early 20th century when a calm existed before the storm of World War I. Here, we're immersed in a setting for love and romance and a battle of the sexes at hand in an air of southern Italian unpretentiousness.

It wasn't all as perfect as could be, with an unpolished air seeping into the musical and vocal parts. As much as the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra played with overall finesse, starting with a tightly gushing overture, conductor Jonathan Darlington overly shook the tempi in the pit and unsettled the stage causing numerous erroneous vocal starts. On this night, the unending beauty of Mozart's score appeared disappointingly scattered.

Nicole Car, Taryn Fiebig and Anna Dowsley
With fractures not limited to the pit, and despite the score being beautifully sung, it was not consistently and rivetingly so with the many glorious vocal ensembles lacking binding strength. Still, the soloists rewarded with many radiant arias that pierced through the work with magnetic appeal. Act I's concluding sextet was however splendidly handled and the lively direction captured the hearts and intentions of the two sisters's resistance to the unabated advances of the two 'foreign' men.

As the cautious, protective and more compliant Fiordiligi, Nicole Car melts into the role with ease while measuring the vocal demands with care. Car's voice is gleaming, pliant and deliciously colourful, and she delivers one of the most heartfelt arias of the night. Preceded by an emotionally sympathetic recitative pensively asking the forgiveness of a loving heart, Car turns Act II, Scene II's "Per pietà, ben mio, perdona" into silk and gold with a captivating pianissimo that gives way to an intoxicating and despairing powerful sound.

Endearing, treacle-rich mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley steals many a moment with her cracker understated comic charm and nervous energy as Dorabella, with touches of comic inspiration from the great Carol Burnett. With Car, a convincing sisterly pairing emerged while their chalk-and-cheese differences created exciting curiosity concerning both their predicament and actions.

Taryn Fiebig scuttles about with a spot of rough-edged lewdness and cheeky Italian gesturing as Despina and cranks up the hilarity with her disguise as both doctor and notary. There's some forgetting to project at the voice's lower range but Fiebig displays luscious characterful vocals elsewhere in her role of power and in her advice to the two love-innocent sisters.

Act II, Scene II of Opera Australia's Così fan tutte
As a quick-tempered Ferrando, David Portillo fills the role amply after fellow American tenor, Charles Castronovo, one of today's most charismatic artists, withdrew. Portillo's shapely, bright, floating and cleanly enunciated tenor set sail from the start, giving Act I, Scene II's concluding "Un'aura amorosa", the most poignantly and technically superior aria to that point, warmly confident in voice and in his fiancée's faithfulness.

Andrew Jones lavishes heaps of bravado on Guglielmo with an in-form roaring-lion baritone to match the long golden mane of hair he wears as the disguised Turk, Wallachian or wherever the exotic pair really hail from. Together with Portillo, the camaraderie, the boys-will-be-boys play and the crossings are knitted soundly together in performance.

Don Alfonso is in gentlemanly hands with Richard Anderson's dignified performance and softly persuasive cigar-box bass that seems wondrously lifted off the walls of Act I's men's club. The soldiers and servants of the Opera Australia Chorus sing behind the scenes, pleasingly tuneful if somewhat muffled, in a sensibly directed move that focuses the entire drama on the principals.

Mozart and Da Ponte's opera never fails to draw you in with its subliminally inviting music and its infectious and provocative libretto. Opera Australia's newest production achieves much in McVicar's hands but a more concerted musical and vocal rendering would set it apart. Young lovers take note - there's much to take home and chew over in bed with this one.

Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 13th August

Production photographs: Prudence Upton